Indian Pudding: A Classic Dish With A Shady Past

Indian PuddingPhoto By Del Leandro.

If you want to go full New England with your feasting this holiday season, then it only makes sense to end your meal with the iconic regional dessert known as Indian pudding.

But if you want to experience it, your options are fairly limited. It’s not on the menu at Loyal Nine, which specializes in New England cuisine, and you can’t buy it at Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe, a source of many regional foodstuffs.

So it’s either make your own or drop by Summer Shack on Alewife Brook Parkway, which features it on their dessert menu for $8, served with vanilla ice cream.

“We’ve had it for years,” says Del Leandro, the culinary director for the restaurant.

It was first added to their menu by Jasper White, the original chef for Summer Shack, who wanted to complement another dish that had Native American roots: the clam bake. The restaurant also used to feature other classic New England foods like cod cakes and brown bread, says Leandro, but they eventually dropped off the menu. Indian pudding, though, has staying power.

“We make our own cornbread fresh every day, and we use it to make the recipe,” he says. “It’s more like a custard with molasses and crumbled cornbread, and we make it in a double boiler.”

Today’s Indian pudding will inevitably be somewhat different from the one the Pilgrims ate (and not just because they didn’t have vanilla ice cream), but its roots will be the same.

“This is a very Northeastern food that has remained characteristic of the Northeast,” says Joyce E. Chaplin, the James Duncan Phillips professor of early American history at Harvard University, who has studied colonial foods. “It may have had different ways of being cooked, but it has remained a real New England specialty.” 

Colonists may have originally made a cornmeal mush or hasty pudding, which are different but related dishes. But then they started adding ingredients preferred by the European palate—cow’s milk, sugar or molasses from the Caribbean, spices from the East—and created something entirely new.

 As for the name? Well, that’s where things get a bit … complicated. 

“One of the first places the Pilgrims landed, they dug up a cache of Indian corn to plant as a crop, and said they would pay them back,” Chaplin explains. “That’s kind of taking someone’s daily bread, then marking the debt—but not really—by calling it ‘Indian pudding’ when the dish is kind of unrecognizable to the native peoples.”

Still, for Jasper White it was an homage to those first peoples and a way to honor foods that had deep roots in the region. And according to Leandro, that’s not the only reason it has remained on their menu.

“It’s delicious,” he says.

This story is a part of our Celebrating The Season package, the rest of which appears in the Nov/Dec print issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Cambridge (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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